The JFK assassination: Researching film adaptations of the historical event

A still frame from the Zapruder film. (Courtesy of the Warren Commission)

A still frame from the Zapruder film. (Courtesy of the Warren Commission)

It was a 26-second film. When Abraham Zapruder filmed the Dallas roadway as President Kennedy’s motorcade passed by, he captured the moment President John F. Kennedy was shot. When the Kennedy assassination video first aired, people thought perhaps they would find some closure to the event that had rocked the nation. But the home video did little to provide those conclusions. Now, fifty years later, the Zapruder film is once again in the public mind, and Abraham Zapruder himself appeared as a character in Parkland, a new film about the Kennedy assassination as witnessed by Americans on the scene in Dallas and at Parkland Hospital where President Kennedy was declared dead. How do films and film adaptations change how historical events are viewed? A study of the John F. Kennedy assassination video or film adaptations of the president’s life could be good research paper topics for film studies or history courses.

The Zapruder film

In the modern era, when camera phones are ubiquitous and tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing are filmed from multiple angles, the idea that a moment like the one captured on the Zapruder film seems intuitive. But for Abraham Zapruder to take home film of the event was rare. Stills from the film and the video itself were highly desired by media and government representatives alike. Anchorman Dan Rather, interviewed for the television special My Days in Dallas: A Remembrance, recalled thinking, “The president is dead in front of thousands of people. There must be pictures,” Joshua Gardner posted in the November 21, 2013 London Daily Mail article, “Dan Rather recounts tracking down the Zapruder JFK assassination film 50 years ago – and being outbid on the iconic footage by Time magazine.” Rather found Zapruder, who had filmed the event on his 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic home movie camera. But Rather was not the only reporter who had found Zapruder – Richard “Dick” Stolley of Life magazine had also approached the businessman – and Zapruder wisely hired a lawyer.  Eventually, Stolley and Life offered Zapruder the equivalent of a modern million dollars for the footage. Rather was allowed to watch the video, and the reporter shot to national prominence as the first to cover the event.

Though still frames from the film were published in Life, American audiences had to wait for more than a decade before the footage was released to the public. “I remember the first time I saw it. It was in 1975, on the late-night ABC program Good Night America — which was, in fact, the first time the Zapruder film had ever been shown on network television,” recalled Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly in his November 22, 2013 article, “JFK: What the Zapruder film really means.” Footage was shown during the 1969 Clay Shaw/Jim Garrison trial, and the moment of its revelation was the climactic moment of the Oliver Stone 1991 Hollywood film, JFK. What struck Gleiberman about the film, on the 50th anniversary of the event, was that the footage enabled Americans to believe in conspiracy theories – for all that the film records events as they happened, the interpretation of those events still allows imaginations to run wild. “The Zapruder film shows us that act, over and over again,” Gleiberman wrote, “…but not, perhaps, the reality behind it. And maybe there’s no way that it could. After all, it’s only a movie.”

It’s a movie worth quite a lot of money, however; along with the payment from Life magazine, the Zapruder family won a claim in court that they were owed $16 million after the federal government claimed that the film was property of the People of the United States. The Zapruder family maintains the copyright to the footage.


While the Zapruder film caught the public’s imagination, Zapruder, the man himself – and the many others who were present during the assassination – became the focus of Peter Landesmann’s recreation of November 22, 1963, Parkland. The film, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, avoids sensationalizing the conspiracy theory aspects (as did JFK) by focusing on the first-hand experience of the people at Parkland Hospital. Though critics were divided on the film’s reception – some critics felt that casting choices and trite Hollywood clichés robbed the film of its historical gravitas – others praised Landesmann for his depiction of events. “It is … a relief to find that this one, Parkland, is constructed more from fact than supposition, with none of the wild flights of fancy that inspired Oliver Stone’s 1991 thriller JFK,” wrote Brian Viner of the London Daily Mail in the November 22, 2013 review, “The unusual suspects: The story of JFK’s killing may be familiar to most, but 50 years on, this film reveals fresh views of the assassination.”

How do you think video footage impacts an audience’s understanding of historical events? Tell us in the comments. 

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